Big Cities

A Mighty Fine Capital

We hadn’t heard the greatest reviews of Vientiane, Laos’ capital city, but it was inevitable that we would need to travel through it and spend the night at least once. No one had anything particularly bad to say about the place, it just didn’t have any not-to-be-missed sights or activities. So we were headed into town without high expectations – but found ourselves pleasantly surprised.

A beautiful riverfront

Healthy street food!

And, of course, all the BeerLao you can drink!

As we imagined, Vientiane isn’t full of a lot of hustle and bustle. Rather, it’s pretty chill, kinda like the Lao people in general. Things just move along at a medium pace. Walking around that first evening, we were very impressed with the vibrant street scene, the french-inspired architecture, the remarkably clean streets, and the overall feeling of modernity. After spending time in places like India, which are mentioned in the news for their developing global economy yet are very much in disarray in terms of public services and general operations, we were quite surprised that little ole Communist Laos, one of the world’s poorest countries, had such a lovely capital city. Nice sidewalks, all sorts of landscaping and greenery, an awesome riverfront, tree-lined streets, flower-lined avenues, and just no trash anywhere. No clue how they they got so on the ball, who’s paying to keep it clean and landscaped, but it’s nice. The Lao people have something good going on here.

The French influence is very much alive here

Street restaurant owner, thanking us for our business

The amazing meal we ate at this guy's restaurant - Lao specialty, Laap, with sticky rice!

Though we didn’t leave ourselves much time for tourist activities, we did enjoy a lovely sunset walk along the newly-completed Mekong riverfront path (funded by foreign aid). The riverfront was booming with activity – kids playing soccer, couples watching the sun set, teenagers just hanging. One activity we did not expect to encounter – literally hundreds of Lao folks out for their evening exercise. Throughout our trip we had not seen a lot of exercise for exercise’s sake – most people in developing countries have much larger concerns than their level of fitness. Ted got ridiculed in India when he went for a jog – why is this guy running?!? But in Vientiane, we saw runners, walkers, joggers, people on bicycles, roller-bladers – the works! The big kicker was a strangely popular waterfront aerobics class – literally dozens of participants moving in unison in the shadow of a gigantic statue! There were also public exercise stations and stationary bikes lining the path that appeared to be quite popular.

Vientiane riverfront at sunset

Riverfront fountains and art

The Lao fitness craze - who'd a thought?

I have no idea why there were so many folks on board the fitness train in Vientiane, but we’ll tack it on our list as another one of the many unexplainable things that we’ve encountered on our travels.

Deliciousness – Street Food in Bangkok

Thailand is famous for its street food.  Food stalls and rolling carts whip up your favorite kebabs, noodle dishes, and fried goodness, hot and fresh while you wait.  It’s dirt cheap, it’s widely available, and it’s better than any Thai food I’ve ever found in the States.

Our favorite street kebabs on Khao San Rd

Every meal, every snack is exciting - hard to go wrong with Thai Food!

Many times, you have no idea what you're getting

Ok, maybe you can go wrong. Here is an assortment of fried bugs and scorpions

Late-night pad thai and spring rolls on Khao San!

Melting Hot in Unexpected Comfort

Bangkok was HOT. I mean, very hot. I mean, about as uncomfortably hot as we’ve ever been. We would be sweating within minutes of leaving our air-conditioned hotel room. In fact, this was the first time we had needed an air-conditioned hotel room, and it was worth every extra penny. Our room/cool box was a welcome and needed relief and we found ourselves making forays out into the sweltering city but only for short stints at a time.

Melting on Khao San

We spent a great afternoon at Chatuchak Market – a massive market for both tourists and locals alike. They have a gigantic selection of everything from clothing, to housewares, from puppies to souvenirs, and of course delicious Thai food. It’s torture to visit a place like this and know that you don’t have enough extra room in your backpack for all the things you want to buy, especially when they are so cheap!

Chatuchak Market

Seriously, puppies at the market

We also ventured into China Town to check out more street vendors and stores selling anything and everything you could imagine, and when we were sufficiently over-heated we headed to one of Bangkok’s many state-of-the-art malls to cool off and see a movie. Bangkok’s malls are incredibly impressive – they are some of the biggest, most modern and architecturally impressive malls that we’ve ever seen. They are definitely a place to see and be seen as we saw thousands of Thais wandering the 10 or so floors, chatting and texting on their fancy smart phones. We don’t have malls this nice in the US.

Chinatown in Bangkok


What's this?

Meat, cooked and raw

Made in Thailand

But mostly we just enjoyed the creature comforts of a developed city and looked forward to our next opportunity to eat yummy and amazingly inexpensive Thai food. Coming from India and Nepal, where everything from purchasing bus tickets, to driving 20km on a hellish road could take hours – Thailand was a dream. Air-conditioned taxis with leather seats; multi-lane highways where people followed traffic rules; customer service agents at the train station to assist travelers with their bookings; excellent English everywhere. Bangkok was a nice and easy place to spend a few days and we made sure to appreciate it!

Party in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand is one of the primary hubs of Southeast Asia, and is ground zero for most backpackers setting off (or returning from) an Asian adventure. Chalked full of Aussies and Brits in particular, mobs of people seek out S.E. Asia for the beaches, the food, the cheap and extensive travel options, and of course, the parties.

In Bangkok, the center of the mayhem is Khao San Road. Hundreds of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, spa and massage parlors, food stalls, and souvenir shops can be found in a few block radius. Within hours of landing in Bangkok, we were meeting up with our good pals Dave and Jesse for a night on the town – it had been all of 24 hours since we were hanging out in Nepal, and we were all going through a bit of separation anxiety!

Khao San Rd - where the party rages every night

Dave and Jesse had already been through Bangkok prior to meeting up with us in Nepal so we let them lead the way. The night started innocently enough with our first of many amazing Thai meals from a simple stand along the side of the road. Bangkok was HOT so it was obviously necessary that we drink a few Chang beers to cool off. The next stop was a VW van converted into a bar along the side of the road. Not sure what the deal was exactly but it was hilariously decorated, pumped loud music and served buckets of alcoholic drinks. Next up – a group foot massage. Thailand’s massage industry is as prolific as it is inexpensive. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a massage over a beer – another of many firsts on this trip!

Welcome to Thailand dinner at a street stall

First Thai meal!

Sharing buckets of booze at the VW van bar

Foot massages and beer! Welcome to Thailand!

Post-massages it was back to Khao San Road to watch the chaos unfold. British folks decked out for clubbing; Australians straight off their surfboards; beautiful Thai women being escorted by unfortunate, dumpy white men; Thai teenagers breakdancing; vendors selling fried insects as snacks; more vendors selling anything from gigantic Zippo lighters, to ridiculous hats, to glow-in-the-dark bracelets; cover bands singing Van Morrison, or the Eagles, or Guns and Roses. It was loud, it was crazy and it was a lot of fun. It was our last evening with Dave and Jesse before our itineraries took us in different directions, so we made sure to go out with a bang!

Friendly vendors take advantage of drunk tourists

Dave bargains hard for a good deal on his new hat - "That price is WAY too high!"

Ok, I'll take it! Now, you take a photo with me?!

Crazy good break dancers

Pad Thai night-cap!

Stepping into the First World

We’ve gotten pretty used to chaotic, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes annoying, sometimes outrageously inefficient, sometimes completely unsuccessful situations and interactions during our travels throughout India and Nepal. It’s the developing world, it’s poor, and it’s packed with people struggling to survive. That’s what you put up with, but it’s a fight worth having, because the rewards, tastes, interactions, lessons, and experiences are so worth it.

When we stepped off the flight from Nepal to Thailand, we entered a different world – a world of functionality, efficiency, comfort, and relative peace and quiet. It’s amazing how you come to appreciate the little things when they’ve been absent so long. A few things that put smiles on our faces:

  • No honking!
  • Highways, with lanes that people stay in, and traffic laws that are followed!
  • 24-hour electricity!
  • Drinkable ice!
  • Air-conditioned taxis with leather seats!
  • 7-11 stores every 100 meters, full of everything an American 7-11 would have (plus alcohol)!
  • Vendors actually listen when you say “no thanks” and leave you alone, often while maintaining a smile the whole time!

While the creature comforts are nice to have again, there are some cultural trade-offs that made everyday interactions a bit more bland. White people are everywhere. EVERYWHERE! Aussies and Brits galore, complete with their boisterous (and fun) attitudes. Local people just are not as interested in us, who we are and where we’re from. Initiating interactions is more difficult, as they are a more reserved culture very accustomed to tourists.

For better or for worse, we’re happy to be here. It might take a bit more effort to get away from the crowds, but the cultural traditions are equally as intriguing, the food is equally as amazing, and who doesn’t like a little comfort after roughing it for, say, 4 months!

Lucky Us

While in Kathmandu, Ted set up a couple of work-related meetings for himself, one of which resulted in us getting a driver and tour guide for a full day of sight-seeing. With our guide, Soneil, we drove out into the Kathmandu Valley and saw some amazing sites and people. While many people dismiss Kathmandu as a dirty, smoggy big city worth only the time required to pass through, we disagree – there are some beautiful and fascinating stops throughout the valley, showcasing the rich Nepali culture, religion, cuisine, and history.

Our first stop was the city of Bhaktapur, which along with Kathmandu and Patan, was one of the three medieval kingdoms that once competed for power in governing the area. Eventually, Kathmandu won that battle. The Newari architecture is particularly impressive.

Bhaktapur entrance

Soneil, our guide, teaches us the history of Bhaktapur

Newari architecture


While in the neighborhood, we headed to Changu Narayan Temple. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the oldest temple in the Kathmandu Valley has carvings dating back from the 4th-9th centuries.

Changu Narayan Temple

This piece dates back to the 4th century!

After a quick lunch, we visited one of Nepal’s largest and most impressive stupas – Bodhnath Stupa. Stupas are sites of religious significance to Buddhists. The day we were there just happened to corresponded with Buddha’s birthday so we got to see quite the celebration. There were thousands of people, hundreds of prayer flags and lots of excitement. It was a pretty wonderful experience.

Bodhnath Stupa - once the biggest stupa in the world

Special celebrations for the holiday

A Tibetan Monestary near Bodhnath


The day ended back in Kathmandu proper at the famous Durbar Square. Though hard to describe, the Lonely Planet calls it “the traditional heart of the old town and Kathmandu’s most spectacular legacy of traditional architecture.” Definitely a must see for any visitor.

Durbar Square

Guard, Durbar Square

Durbar Square

Taxi stand, Durbar Square

We were very grateful to our excellent guide and driver, and Ted’s friend Pawan, who arranged the action-packed day for us. We loved our day in the Kathmandu Valley, and appreciated the opportunity to get out of the middle of the tourist ghetto and learn a little about Nepal’s history.


Wow, the tourist area of Kathmandu is insane! After spending weeks in the wilderness and small, somewhat sleepier towns, Kathmandu is a slap in the face. Cruising down the road in Thamel (the tourist ghetto), you are bombarded with hanging signs, and even walking becomes an obstacle course, choosing where to eat is overwhelming, and avoiding tour operators trying to sell you Everest Base Camp hikes requires athletic ability.

Tourist ghetto - Thamel

Bombardment by sign!

A little shopping

Most people arrive into Nepal through Kathmandu however, we were doing just the opposite. It is an excellent spot to arrange trekking, stock up on fake North Face gear and get ready to head into the wilderness, but we had already done that.

So for us, Kathmandu was a place to do laundry, catch up on email and eat yummy food. We overlapped with Dave and Jesse again for a few days, visiting the famous Monkey Temple which is an impressive stupa overlooking the whole city, and splurging on gigantic servings of dal bhat (typical Nepali food), for their last meal in the country. We also had a great meal with Ted’s friend and former boss John Watson from Colorado, who happened to be passing through at the same time (we actually planned to overlap for a night in Bandipur, but those damn strikes got in the way!). All and all, a nice and easy way to spend our last few days in Nepal.

The very long staircase to the Monkey Temple

Jesse low-fives a buddha

The only friggin monkey we saw at the "Monkey Temple"!

Swayambhunath - aka the Monkey Temple

The Kathmandu Valley, from Swayambhunath

Favorite picture from Swayambhunath

Ganga Aarti Ceremony

Animated Hindu God Painting

I see the appeal of Hinduism. Where at home religion is a part of your life, in India it is so intertwined with life that it’s hard to differentiate one from the other. There is so much color, light, music, and opportunity for celebration in the faith. Religion is part of your cuisine, your style, your friends, even your social standing in the community. For young children, there are animal gods, many dressed in different costumes and there are numerous, fun stories about their powers and various manifestations.  If I was a kid and I had to chose between dressing up, being quiet, behaving and going to church or getting to run around with all my friends while fire twirlers were performing and cymbals were gonging, it wouldn’t be hard decision.

One Hindu celebration that we witnessed in both Rishikesh and Varanasi was called the Ganga Aarti Ceremony. Ganga Aarti is performed everyday along the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) river. There were so many people and so much energy surrounding the event that it literally felt like a once a year type celebration – a 4th of July if you will. But no, this was just another regular Tuesday, or Wednesday or any day – it didn’t matter. The ceremony features priests facing the river and performing various symbolic offerings with candles, and rice, and feathers, etc. Meanwhile another man is leading the group in song or just chanting. Hundreds of people are along the riverside releasing candles into the Ganga. Thousands of others are sitting nearby watching the ceremony while still many more are just standing around talking, from what I could tell.

Nightly Ganga Aarti Ceremony in Rishikesh

Sarah participating in the ceremony

Flower boats for release into the Ganga during the ceremony

Varanasi Ganga Aarti Ceremony Madness

Ganga Aarti in Varanasi

Where in church, silence is expected, believers are attentive, and things go in a particular order, that could not be farther from the truth here. People move and listen and come and go and participate however they wish. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s loud, and it’s just part of everyday life; but because it is impossible to separate religion from life, nobody tries to.

Getting Pitched in India

Throughout India, everyone is trying to sell you something, all the time. You literally can’t walk 10 ft without someone pitching you a ride in their rickshaw, a look in their shop, a stay at their hotel, a booking on their trips, or a plain and simple ask for money. This is just part of the intensity of India, and while it gets old, you really can’t fault them for it – with over 1 billion people in the country, it’s a cut-throat competitive market for survival. At least these people are motivated and enterprising.

So, let’s say you take the bait, you’re interested in buying some of Rajasthan’s beautiful textiles or art, and you’ve allowed yourself to be pulled into a nice-looking shop. Here is some typical dialogue:

Welcome to my shop! You will not be disappointed! We have the best textiles in all of Rajasthan. Richard Gere and Tom Cruise, whenever they come to India, they come shop in my store. And I export to many stores in Paris, Rome, and New York. I even supply to many famous fashion designers – Armani, Burberry, and Versace!

Now, all of this is likely a lie, as every shop you pass seems to claim Richard Gere’s patronage (why Richard Gere?!?), though we did see a NYTimes article about one of the shops supplying famous boutique stores in NYC.

All store owners start with 3 questions, and they are always the same questions. At first, they may just seem interested in who you are, but each question is really providing them insight into your buying power and naivete:

Where are you from? This gauges whether you are likely to have money. You say America, they see $$

Where are you staying? A more detailed assessment of your financial situation, and what you’re willing to pay for in India, which can be a huge range (rooms from $5 to $500)

How long have you been here? This question determines 2 things: are you going to buy something today, and are you aware of Indian pricing and haggling. If you say, “I’ve been here for a week, and I head home tomorrow,” you’re prime bait – you want to buy souvenirs, and you likely aren’t aware of the true market value of what he’s selling. If you say, “I’ve been in India for 6 months,” that’s bad news, as you likely have seen these products around the country, have learned how to haggle, and know how to call bullshit when they attempt to put a fast one over you. Needless to say, we claimed to have been in the country for way longer than we actually had.

Now that the store owner has a general feel for what you’re willing to spend, it’s time to lay it on thick. And it is a hell of a presentation. Generally you’re taken to a separate room, where an air conditioner is running at full blast. Two or three assistants will unroll, unfold, and properly present to you every color, fabric, and style they have in stock, while the lead salesman describes the origin, material quality, and patterns of each item in the showcase. As soon as you expresses the slightest interest in a particular piece (ie, you touch it or look at it for more than 2 seconds), the presentation is modified to focus on those particular styles. There is no dead space in the conversation – every moment is filled with BS about the amazing quality of the material, craftsmanship, or beauty of the products. These guys act as though they are your best friends, and all they want to do is give you a great deal.

That is, until you say no. And once you say no (and they have accepted that no, so really after you say it about 10 times), it is amazing how quickly their attitude changes. The air conditioner gets shut off, and their smiles have turned to scowls. Suddenly, you’re made to feel guilty for not purchasing, for wasting their valuable time (this is despite the fact that we very specifically would tell them upon entering the shop that we’re not interested in buying anything today, just browsing). Indian salespeople are not scared to make you feel awkward and uncomfortable, and this guilt trip might just make you feel bad enough to change your mind.

Because of situations like this, I didn’t particularly love buying things in India. But that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable for some. We had some pretty significant limitations – we didn’t have space to carry things, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on souvenirs, and neither one of us particularly likes to barter. But for people with more room and money, and for those that like to haggle, you can get some amazing things at incredible prices.

Ted’s Early Impressions of India

India – well, we’ve been here nearly 2 weeks. At first, I thought, this isn’t nearly as bad as people warned. Staying with Sasank provided a rather comfortable introduction. Sure, the streets of Old Delhi were nuts, but there is a lot of the city that’s relatively chill. And after Africa, we’ve seen some falling-down towns and poor people.

After a week though, it’s starting to wear on me a bit. The problem here is that people don’t understand the word “no”. Whereas in Africa, if I looked at a kid or a tout or a beggar and said “no” with intent, then they’d leave me alone. Here, that’s not the case. From rickshaw drivers, to store owners, to kids begging for money – you literally have to push them away with force. I’ve found completely ignoring people works pretty well too (almost pretending I don’t speak English). And getting anything done is such an effort. I am starting to understand why people come here and stick around one spot for a week or more, rather than trying to see a bunch of stuff. Booking transport has been a pain in the butt (though it has run smoothly), and just walking down the street takes a significant amount of effort. And the non-stop car horns – that’s gotten real old already.

Bitching aside, this place is fascinating, and the food is SO delicious. Into our second week, we’re starting to understand the India vibe and flow, and this is most certainly a special place. We’ve met some really cool people (this has been the highest density of travelers we’ve encountered so far, overall), getting some advice on how to navigate the transport, hotels, what to order at restaurants, etc. After 3 months in Africa, with a much less developed traveler infrastructure and network (and really just a lot less travelers), India has been a nice reintroduction back to the backpacker scene.

The diversity of this country is also amazing – this is a continent within a country (and its population mirrors that analogy). There are individual states here that have over 80 million people, and have histories, religions, and customs that are drastically different than other parts of the country. So in many ways, the states are almost like individual countries. Such rich history here as well (and beautiful remnants of it everywhere in the forms of forts, temples, old cities, and palaces), and we’re just now starting to learn about the different rulers and the legacies they’ve left behind. Fascinating.

People are initially much friendlier and much more forward than we’ve encountered before, always saying hello, and asking where we’re from (and immediately upon learning, shouting “Obama!”). But so far, I’ve encountered a lack of genuineness – everyone who starts a conversation with me eventually gets to what they want from me – either a ride in their rickshaw, or a browse in their shop, or to go to their friend’s tourist agency, or to stay in their brother’s hotel. I’ve not had one conversation with an Indian person that wasn’t driven by their self-interest, and that’s kind of disheartening. I know (hope) that will change.

So, those are India first impressions. Living up to its reputation of a land of contrasts.

Copyright © 1996-2010 Oh, the Places We'll Go. All rights reserved.
iDream theme by Templates Next | Powered by WordPress